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Unfamiliarity is good for future leaders

In the recent review of Leadership for Learning, HMIE points out that its report "... adopts a cross-sectoral approach which asserts that the principles of effective leadership are common to all sectors, although the challenges and methods of approach may well vary, depending on context".

I found this very interesting, particularly as I've just returned from America where I had been surprised by the number of high school principals who had started their management careers in elementary (primary) schools or middle schools.

One of the reasons I was surprised was that the system there is so oriented to performance measurement if something does not improve the numbers, it won't be continued. Yet, there is no apparent difference in the performance of schools led by leaders who have only worked in the high school setting and those who are led by leaders who were first in the elementary setting.

So where does that leave us in Scotland? Well, it doesn't happen. So why not? One of the reasons often given is that primary schools are so different from secondary schools or there's the exam system, the timetable, pupil behaviour, the structure of departments and often the difference in the number of pupils. Yet, one could argue, such elements are all at the technical end of the spectrum: that is, they can be learned.

What's been reinforced in all reports and literature relating to educational leadership is that the big management issues people and culture are absolutely the same in primary and secondary schools.

When I moved from being a secondary headteacher to head of education, no one batted an eyelid. Yet, no one could have suggested that I had all the technical knowledge necessary to do the job. I had developed a set of transferable leadership and management skills which allowed me to take up my post; the rest I learned on the job.

So why couldn't an outstanding primary head be considered for a position as head of a secondary school, especially when we are experiencing such a shortage of high quality candidates for such posts?

If the reason is to do with size, it would mean that any head of a small secondary school could never be considered for the post of head of a large secondary school. It ought also to be possible for secondary promoted teachers to gain important leadership experience by being appointed to management posts in primary schools. I can think of huge benefits to be gained from such cross fertilization.

The Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland and the Headteachers' Association of Scotland recognise the huge leadership crisis facing Scotland in the next few years, requiring the need to nurture and develop our leaders of the future.

I can think of no better way of developing future leaders than by placing them in sectors with which they are not familiar. Imagine the range of skills and knowledge they would develop.

So what are the barriers? I can think of several: parents might wonder, "How will they control the kids?"; secondary teachers, steeped in their subject areas, might think, "They don't understand what is required to get kids through Highers"; and job-sizing issues might limit some from making the switch. But none of these is insurmountable.

It's interesting to reflect that there might be less of an obstacle for a person going from secondary into primary: there are examples of such appointments.

The real question is given the emerging leadership recruitment crisis in Scotland, can we really afford to continue to see leadership in primary and secondary schools as operating within different worlds?

Don Ledingham is head of education in East Lothian Council. This is the first of a monthly series

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